Formative Years

Edgar Degas, A Roman Beggar Woman, 1857

Edgar Degas, A Roman Beggar Woman, 1857, oil on canvas, 100.3 x 75.2 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, UK

Degas was born to an upper middle-class family in Paris. His mothe, Celestine, was from a Creole family. His father, Auguste, from a family of Italian bankers with some noble ties. The eldest child of five, it was thought Degas would study law and take over the family business. Yet his father shared with Degas a passion for art and music. He often took young Edgar to visit notable art collectors of the day. The private collections of friends and art auctions were other frequent family outings for the Degas men. Celestine, Degas’ mother died when he was only thirteen. The young Degas attended law school to please his father, but he spent his spare moments copying masterworks at the Louvre.

As a teenager, Degas converted his room into an art studio. Degas’ father eventually relented and enrolled his eldest at l'École des Beaux-Arts. Degas attended for a semester before departing on his own privately funded grand tour. This entailed artistic studies in several parts of Italy, where Degas stayed with his family. He painted copies of masterpieces and portraits of himself and his family members.

Determined to become a history painter (the most preeminent role for artists of the time), Edgar setup a studio in Paris and began producing works for the Salon. He first exhibited at the Salon in 1865.

Edgar Degas, Young Spartans Exercising, c. 1860

Edgar Degas, Young Spartans Exercising, c. 1860, oil on canvas, 109.5 x 155 cm, The National Gallery, UK

Edgar Degas, Family Portrait(The Bellelli Family)

Edgar Degas, Family Portrait(The Bellelli Family),1858-1869, oil on canvas, 201x 249.5 cm, Musée d'Orsay

He found it challenging to get his work noticed on the busy walls of the annual Académie de Peinture et Sculpture exhibitions, so Degas wrote to the organizers, imploring them to reconsider their display methods. Degas also found it difficult to finish his work, compulsively reworking details and entire canvases again and again. This was his pattern for the rest of his life. Collectors liked to joke they should chain their Degas to the wall to prevent him from taking them back into his studio.

Degas’ father was overjoyed with his son’s first truly finished painting, The Orchestra at the Opera. The painting was a portrait of his friend the bassoonist Désiré Dihau.

It also included Degas’ first depiction of ballerinas. This painting was spared the artist’s endless retouching by a temporary shipping embargo following the exhibition.

Edgar Degas, The Orchestra at the Opera

Edgar Degas, The Orchestra at the Opera, c. 1870, oil on canvas, 45 x 56 cm, Musée d’Orsay